By James Simons And Sheila Mckenzie-
Victims of discrimination in England and Wales are being denied their fundamental right to justice in discrimination cases, leading to perpetrators if discrimination getting away with offences. Failures in the legal aid system is leading to injustice continuing unchallenged, the human rights watchdog has warned.
An inquiry into legal aid for victims of discrimination by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found relatively few people getting the representation they need in courts or tribunals. As a result many bullish employees are treating individuals as they please because of their knowledge of the limited funds of complainants.Discrimination in this context covers sexual and racial, but in principle any form of bias falls under discrimination. A victim can be discriminated for being the ex partner of the boss, for example.
The inquiry conducted by the ECHR found that between 2013/14 and 2017/18, no workplace discrimination cases received legal aid funding for representation in the employment tribunal, and only one in 200 cases taken on by discrimination specialists received funding for representation in court. A number of barriers to representation, including rules limiting funding to cases with high compensation awards have been spotted.
Discrimination cases are often more about challenging unacceptable behaviour and upholding rights than obtaining financial awards. Victims of discrimination in the workplace are unable to fight their cases because of the task they face against well paid trained lawyers. The watchdog has called on the UK government to ensure that discrimination claims are not assumed to be simply a claim for damages. It has also called for the government to produce specific guidance on exceptional case funding (ECF)
The commission also said that the financial eligibility threshold should be changed to expand the number of people that receive legal aid and reinstate face-to-face legal advice for those who need it.
David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Legal aid was specifically set up to ensure that those who have been wronged, but cannot afford their own legal representation, can access justice.
“The threat of legal action is a powerful deterrent for perpetrators and makes it clear that society will not tolerate injustice.
“Challenging complex issues such as discrimination should never be a David vs Goliath battle, and the system is failing if individuals are left to fight cases themselves at an employment tribunal or in court.
“The current system is clearly in need of reform, and whilst we are pleased that the government is currently reviewing the legal aid process, it must implement our recommendations if the legal aid system is to deliver once again